Not every weakness in California’s public schools is tantamount to an assault on the state Constitution. After a problematic lower-court ruling struck down various job protections for California teachers, an appeals court rendered a more sensible conclusion Thursday: the state’s current seniority and tenure laws aren’t optimal, but they fall short of being unconstitutional.
At issue in the case of Vergara vs. California were laws that lay out a long and tortuous procedure for teachers to appeal a firing, require that less experienced teachers almost always be let go first when districts carry out layoffs and give principals only 18 months to decide whether a new teacher deserves tenure.
These laws go too far. Bad teachers are a stain on schools; parents will go to almost any lengths to avoid the worst of them. Students lose learning time and, perhaps worse, their interest in school under the weakest and least motivated instructors.
The laws should be changed, but it is not the courts’ job to intervene in every poorly crafted or outdated statute. The question was whether these protections so harmed education — and discriminated against the black and Latino students who often come from low-income families and attend schools with fewer resources — that they violated constitutional guarantees of equal treatment and a free and high-quality education.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu decided that they did, despite evidence that truly awful teachers make up a tiny percentage (perhaps 1% to 3%) of the overall teaching force. In addition, as the appeals panel noted, there’s little proof that the weakest teachers are disproportionately assigned to schools with large numbers of black and Latino students. Even if that’s so, that problem isn’t caused by state law, but by union contracts in each district that give more experienced teachers first shot at job openings at other schools, instead of assigning teachers where they’re most needed.
What happens next? Probably nothing very good. The school reform-minded plaintiffs vow to appeal. With the pressure of a lawsuit off its neck, the Legislature, which has been far too solicitous of the wishes of the California Teachers Assn., is less likely to pass AB 934, a reasonable legislative fix to the laws in question that would still protect teachers from capricious and vindictive firings.
Worse, the battle lines between reformers and union-allied groups become even more deeply etched. This state has real problems to work on in its schools, especially the lack of counselors and the looming teacher shortage. If California can’t draw more enthusiastic and well-trained new teachers to fill openings in classrooms, education will suffer mightily — especially for disadvantaged students. This is the big issue that both sides should get to work on resolving.